Another great SCBWI conference for the record books on October 22, 2016. A new venue for SCBWI, the Hess Club (5430 Westheimer) was not difficult to find and the parking was free. I missed ducking out to a coffee shop as we did at the Memorial City Marriott in 2014 and 2015, but the food was good, the company congenial, and the speakers were great.
The proceedings opened with our illustrious Regional Advisor, Vicki Sansum and Charles Trevino. Then we were treated to a keynote address by our own Crystal Allen. If you see her ask her to explain ‘genre’, you’ll get a laugh.
A panel discussion included local success stories Lynne Kelly, Joy Preble, Bruce Foster, Kathy Duval, Sherry Garland, Kim Morris, and Sandra Howatt. Each touched on his/her path and the things they learned along the way, and how much SCBWI contributed to that journey. I’m sorry to say I missed part of this presentation for my first of three critiques.
Our first guest speaker was Katherine Jacobs, who is a senior editor at Roaring Brook Press. Her talk was entitled “The Body Electric: Creating Characters that Spark With Life.” She spoke effectively about bringing your characters alive using their physical characteristics and mannerisms, and incorporating active verbs to describe them. She suggested, “If your character seems boring or cliché, it’s because you didn’t go deep enough. Listen to your character.” Contrasting Flat and Round characters, she used specific writers and their work to make her point, recommending being willing to take your characters to a ‘dark place.’ Summing it up, she said, “Your characters are the soul of your work.”
Maria Middleton is the Art Director at Random House Children’s Books and is responsible for the overall look and feel of all their Middle Grade books. As you might expect, she talked about visual storytelling, using slides to illustrate her points to great effect. Like many people, I’m in a great hurry to get published, so it hit home when she said, “Give yourself time to be great.”
Kelly Sonnack (one or my critiquers) compared Story to a journey, where the writer is the travel guide. She encouraged us to see the story as a path, where you leave a series of breadcrumbs. But you must trust the reader to understand and follow those directions. You promise them a destination, and you need to deliver. She also spoke about character and making the reader root for yours. Likeability plays a big part, but even unreliable or less than admirable characters must allow the reader to connect on some level to be successful. Some things she recommended:
- Look at how you introduce the character.
- Identify their flaws.
- Is every character necessary to the story?
- What does the villain ‘offer’ the protagonist?
She also discussed Plot and examining what the character really wants. This rang true for me, because this is how an actor approaches a character and what he/she does. She gave some very specific recommendations on Voice and Dialog, which feed into each other. Both contributing to Pacing, in that the rhythm and length of your sentences can quicken the pace and build to the climax or completely derail the forward movement.
Susan Dobinick is an editor at Bloomsbury Children’s Books. At her previous publishing job she was one of the editors on Lynne Kelly’s Chained. She tried to help us understand the difference between the ‘moral’ of the story and the broader themes, or the Big Idea. As an exercise, she had each table work together to write a paragraph for a story using three words suggested by the audience: peach, cloud, and robot. I think our table’s story was very promising!
I missed the beginning of Brianne Johnson’s talk about first pages because I was in my second critique. She is a senior agent with Writer’s House. But I don’t think I missed many minutes because what I heard made perfect sense, was very lively and filled with examples. She suggested introducing a mystery or conflict from page one of your manuscript and planting lots of scraps of mystery and conflict as part of character development, tone, setting, and action. “Little mysteries can hook you.”
Ginger Clark was a delightfully spirited and funny speaker. A senior agent at Curtis Brown, Ltd., she is particularly interested in MG and YA historical or fantasy and its world building. We had several things in common, actually:
- Her love of historical YA and MG fiction, I’m writing an MG novel set in 1965 during integration.
- She loves Eleanor of Aquitaine, I played her in Lion in Winter.
- She was in drama and band when she was younger, as was I (and my heroine is a band nerd)
- She is looking for a manuscript about Queen Boadicea, which she pronounced correctly but I knew how to spell.
Ginger compared writing a historical to packing the luggage for the characters. You have to do the research and know what fills their day and what are their habits, clothing, and environment. She encouraged us to use primary sources. Road trip! She also cautioned that you don’t do a historical just to avoid technology or on a whim; let the setting suit the story. She used examples from published texts to show how strategic use of period terms or objects can immediately tell the reader what sort of story he/she is reading and when it occurs. “Give us a place name a kid would know—transportation, clothing, are all world-building. Choose wisely.”
The day was rounded out with a First Look panel discussion of selected first pages and art. I’m happy to say they picked my first page as one of the ones to discuss and it got some very favorable and constructive comments.
Finally, award nominees were announced and everyone found out how many of the silent auction items they’d actually won. I bid on everything! Fortunately, I only won three items, but it was great fun.
Of the two out of three critiques I received (the email one is still outstanding), I was lucky to have generally glowing comments from the lovely Crystal Allen and equally encouraging but constructive criticism from Kelly Sonnack. Yea!
The day concluded with a congenial dinner at Los Cucos. Lots of discussion and impressions from the day and generally good fun. Congrats to the conference planning committee on a job well done.